It’s difficult to watch Marvel’s latest episodic blockbuster, “Ant-Man,” and not spend much of your time trying to spot the post-Edgar Wright compromises and the sanding down of the quirky edges. The “Shaun Of The Dead” director infamously parted ways on the project shortly before production began last year having already spent half a decade developing it on and off. Now, it’s hard to say how Wright’s proposed version compares exactly, but given his previous work, it would likely be much more zany, comic book-y, and camera movement-heavy, with a more singular identity. As directed by Peyton Reed (“Set It Off”), and rewritten by Adam Mckay (“Anchorman”) and lead actor Paul Rudd (plus two other Marvel in-house writers who aren’t credited), the retooled “Ant-Man” is a minor, diverting little effort, but it’s still one that feels a little overly massaged, conventional, and slightly anonymous.
As a heist movie, with a mentor/protégé dynamic, not to mention a parallel father/daughter storyline running throughout, “Ant-Man” sounds like a very different iteration of the Marvel Universe on paper, but in execution, even compared to the more irreverent, but ultimately not that different “Guardians Of The Galaxy,” it’s one of Marvel’s most traditional efforts to date and very safely within their wheelhouse.
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A movie about redemption, second chances, and the potential of fulfilling heroism, “Ant-Man” has two converging narratives. The first half is the baggage-heavy story of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a brilliant physicist and entomologist who created the subatomic “Pym particles” suit, serum, and technology in the 1980s that allowed for the ability to shrink to an infinitesimal size, but retain super strength by harnessing density (think regular ants that can carry twice their mass). Fearing the exploitation of his work — the insect-sized solider as the ultimate secret weapon — Pym hid his formula away and in the process lost his own company to his rebuffed former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). “Ant-Man” essentially begins in present day as the resentful, power-hungry Cross comes dangerously close to replicating Pym’s tech and the elder scientist finds a recruit willing to aid him in keeping the technology from falling into the wrong hands, given that his estranged daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), is a complicated option at best.
The mark is the once-auspicious, two-time loser Scott Lang (Rudd), who has lost both a family and a career. A cunning and crafty ex-con and burglar with no job prospects, a backlog of unpaid child support stands in the way of his one true goal: spending time with his daughter. As recidivism and diminishing opportunities tempt Lang back into a life of crime — via a trio of wacky ex-con pals lead by Michael Peña — and squeezes the father back into a corner, Pym offers him a way out by becoming the Ant-Man.
All super hero movies with a sci-fi-ish technological bent come with exposition, but its the engrossing ones that hide it well. “Ant-Man” is loaded with elucidation to the point of being noticeable and distracting. It’s also replete with the expository training montages, with Scott Lang failing at various tasks as Hank and Hope explain the physics behind the Ant-Man powers and how they work. As a would-be witty heist movie, “Ant-Man” tries to embrace the tropes of the genre — the botched exercises, the bickering, the amusing test-runs that fail — but the movie often lands on the familiar, playing more like a greatest hits collection of heist touchstones rather than a clever update.
Tonally and spiritually, “Ant-Man” resembles the first “Iron Man” film, playfully glib, but with a light-on-its-feet touch that is also slightly goofy. But the movie’s mood vacillates, sometimes resembling one of the pre-“Iron Man” superhero movies of the early aughts (it’s not quite 2005 “Fantastic Four” broad, but it’s a little corny), especially in the finding-its-footing first half.
More modest by design next to the epic scale of recent Marvel efforts like “Avengers: Age Of Ultron,” much of “Ant-Man” still feels like the screenplay lacks confidence in the diminutive character. There are myriad references and nods the Marvel Cinematic Universe — past, present, and future — including an enervating prologue set in 1989 before the movie even begins, emphasizing just how connected Hank Pym is to the greater MCU. The caper also shoehorns-in one action set-piece involving one of “The Avengers” heroes that basically acts as a Marvel Universe intermission from the story and of course sets up the next episode (“Captain America: Civil War”). On its own, maybe as a viral clip, the scene is enjoyable, but in the greater context, its intention feels far too premeditated.
Faith also seems to be lacking in Scott Lang as a compelling protagonist by engulfing him with an army of supporting characters: one essentially an ex-superhero (Pym), another more capable hero forced to sit on the sidelines (Van Dyne), and several sidekicks (Peña, T.I., and David Dastmalchian). There’s also a frenemy cop (Bobby Cannavale), who is marrying his ex-wife, who acts as obstacle and ally.
Yet another origin tale where the hero doesn’t really suit up for what feels like an hour, “Ant-Man” makes one yearn for the days of blockbusters that began in media res with far less overstuffed backstory: Indiana Jones does not become the adventuring archaeologist in “Raiders Of The Lost Ark,” he already is the character when the movie begins, and we learn more about him as the narrative races forward.
“Ant-Man” follows the increasingly familiar template of an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstance who has to make a choice. Mild flavor is given by making Scott Lang a convicted felon behind bars, but much of the piquant criminality — which would immediately make him stand out along other MCU heroes — is instantly undermined when its revealed that Lang is essentially Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving back to the poor, before he got caught. He’s not really a bad guy, the movie says, he just made unfortunate choices, and this moral softening of the character feels extremely safe and deliberate.
There’s also some troubling, overly-elaborate issues with problem solving logic. While it makes a few excuses — one dialogue heavy scene in particular — “Ant-Man” frustratingly goes out of its way to ensure Hope van Dyne is not the hero of the story, even though all signs in the movie point to her being the best and most suitable candidate to suit up into the Ant-Man costume. She even trains Lang almost every step of the way; she’s truly the logical choice to save the day. But the movie takes the long way home and draws a circuitous and convoluted narrative path to guarantee its Lang that takes the mantle instead. Though perhaps that’s best as van Dyne isn’t exactly well-drawn, it’s Pym and Lang’s story, and all other characters are mostly narrative filler (let’s not talk about the bitter, chip-on-his-shoulder antagonist who feels like he’s ripped out of one of the recent “Amazing Spider-Man” movies). And then there are two poor credit tag sequences that again, undercut the narrative, especially undermining van Dyne while trying to give her a wink.
And yet, for all of its little clunky narrative problems, “Ant-Man” surprisingly has an easy time selling the silly idea that on top of reducing Scott Lang down to microscopic size, Hank Pym can also control ants with some mental telepathic contraption. Perhaps it’s because by this point the goofiness of “Ant-Man” is in full swing and this side dish of absurdity is easier to swallow. Ironically, “Ant-Man” may be at its most enjoyable when its at its most mindless, with Lang leading an army of ants on the attack, with lasers, winged ants, and lots of dizzying CGI flying about. It can get as cacophonous and loud as many third acts in superhero movies get, amplifying everything to eleven, but some of these sequences are admittedly nifty and well-designed.
Director Peyton Reed doesn’t take much of the story self-seriously, which makes sense given its framework. As inherently silly as a movie about a superhero who shrinks down to size and leads armies of ants can be, “Ant-Man” has fun with the meager concept without being overly self-deprecating. One third act set-piece in a little girl’s room involving a Thomas The Train set is particularly inventive and witty. Nevertheless, the film still is redolent with negotiation and sanitation. It’s vaguely offbeat, but not exactly weird, it’s goofy, but also has a very emotional, earnest side as well. Reed’s version, rewritten continuously, polishes a lot of personality to an indistinctive point. Take Rudd: his natural charms are somehow muted as his character is, at the end of the day, just too save-the-day simple.
There are various highlights of course: a “2001”-esque detour into the reality-free quantum realm is visually attention-grabbing, the marching ant-sequences are surprisingly entertaining, and Michael Pena is hilarious as one of the high strung, excitable criminal sidekicks (though he also unfortunately often only serves to remind how unfunny the rest of the movie is in comparison). However, “Ant-Man” also has an episodic feel, acting as yet another Marvel chapter, and the sitcom-y score by Christopher Beck does it little favor in this regard (another “funky” Garrett Morris cameo feels entirely pointless too).
Marvel’s “Ocean’s Eleven” meets “Iron Man” mélange does have its fleeting pleasures, but is ultimately a minor, milder MCU effort. Size may not matter in this diminutive story, but the film’s slight, inconsequential quality hardly qualifies it as an essential tale to astonish. [C+]